I have to applaud Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg for increasing awareness and adding color to the array of issues that our society (and I would emphasize society, rather than just women) faces in better incorporating women into the workforce and reducing the gender gap.
In this recent article (first of of a series) in the New York Times, titled: “When Talking About Bias Backfires”, they write about the fact that raising awareness about gender bias may actually deepen stereotypes about women, rather than reducing them.
When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.
I like the analysis but I think it reaches the wrong conclusion. A call for action attached to the awareness is not enough. It’s all about the good old “WIIFM” (“What’s in it for me? “). In my numerous conversations about the gender gap I found out the following.
1. The terminology is problematic. Gender Bias, Gender gap, Gender equality, Gender Equity, are all stuck up academic terms that alienate the average person from the topic. Talking with these terms creates an immediate dissociation in the listener. The conversation becomes formal, academic, bureaucratic, compliance related instead of a meaningful discussion about an important issue for society. This is why increasing awareness about the terms may be ineffective. I have seen this numerous times in the corporate world, when a new initiative is launched with bogus names such as “Program for Gender Equity”, “Say No to Sexual Harassment”, “Corporate Ecosystem Services Value Chain Analysis”. Employees simply hate it because they know that their company is just covering its behind on their expense. When you have to train the trainers (ex: HR) to understand what the name of the program means, most likely you have to come up with a better name for it.
2. Awareness is a nice thing indeed. But most of the talented young women I met, were already somewhat aware of the gender bias. This is why they were consciously trying to distance themselves from this “women issue”. They have spent their careers fighting for their place and proving that they can do it, “just like any man”. They didn’t want their gender to be a factor. They wanted their achievements to be the issue of discussion. They would try so hard to not make it their problem that I would just have to make it their problem. Two of the common questions I would ask in response to rejection of the topic were:
a) Why should you have to behave like “one of the guys” in order to be accepted, given that you’re not a guy, you are a woman?
b) it’s so great that you have been given equal access to opportunities, but do you know other women in this company that were discriminated or mistreated because of their gender? Could things be done differently?
After those, the real conversation would start (and sometimes would last for hours).
3. There is too much focus on the problem instead of on proven solutions. I have heard several women talk about how the system is all messed up and there is nothing to do about it. Sexism in banking and VC doesn’t seem to go away, family-friendly labor practices are a rainbow in the horizon, and women don’t really want to be CEOs anyways. Maternity seems to be the top-of-mind obstacle (perhaps because the bellies are so visible). However, I really have hard time believing that this is the real issue. Having met several supermoms that have several kids and run their own companies as well as households, I know it can be done with the right amount of ambition (and of course financial success). We need much more emphasize on the success stories of individuals and companies challenging the status quo so that people would have more reasons to believe and the debate could be richer.
All in all, I am very optimistic and am hopeful that in the not so far future, the terms “gender bias” or “gender equity” would become obsolete because this will be a non-issue.